Thousands of families hustled through ballrooms to get supplies, new haircuts and everything they need before school starts during the Denton Back to School Fair on Saturday morning.
The Back to School Fair, held this year at Embassy Suites by Hilton Denton Convention Center, offered a variety of services for families with students who are eligible for free lunch. It’s organized by several entities including Denton ISD, United Way of Denton County, Interfaith Ministries and Serve Denton.
The fair offers health services and connects families to resources in the community. In a few rooms, organizations provided free vision and hearing exams, haircuts and connected families to several dental offices in the area.
One organization new to the back-to-school territory Saturday was DFW Trans Kids and Families of Texas. The group started in 2015 with a few families seeking to support their transgender kids, and the nonprofit has since grown into a larger support and advocacy organization.
“Our mission statement is to create awareness, and this is how we do it,” Kelly Pelkey, the group’s fundraising coordinator, said about resource fairs. “[We’re] letting people know [families with trans kids] are just like them and help families who didn’t know we existed.”
The organization has previously participated in suicide prevention and pride events in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Some of their monthly events offer peer support for parents to discuss what it’s like to parent a transgender child, as well as social gatherings for families.
“As a parent of a trans child, it’s important to find the right doctors, the right therapists and find support that feels like a [family],” Pelkey said.
Monica Moen, a committee member for Denton’s Back-to-School Fair, said she considers haircuts to be a part of the health aspect of the fair. Moen said having a good self-image is a good step to starting a new school year.
“What we’re trying to do is give kids a healthy start,” Moen said. “It’s important they feel their best [for their] spiritual and mental health.”
Hairstylists from around the area — including the local J.C. Penney, ITS Academy of Beauty and Ogle School, and Denton ISD’s cosmetology program — volunteered their time to give kids new looks and freshen up old ones.
“All of it is free and has to do with a large number of kids that fit the criteria for free lunch,” Moen said.
Groups from the University of North Texas were involved in a few aspects of the fair, including outreach and conducting hearing exams for kids. While grade school students are years away from college, a staffer said UNT does a lot of outreach to area schools.
Landon Ellison, with the UNT Office of Outreach, said kids he’s spoken to at outreach events are very knowledgeable and aware of college. He mentioned a class of fifth graders who asked him about student debt, and an eighth grader on Saturday who asked about UNT’s engineering programs.
“To me [outreach is] very rewarding,” Ellison said. “I like helping people find their pathway. It’s really empowering to reach [kids] at a younger age. Even if they don’t remember everything, they’ll remember something and hopefully that’s something they can hold onto during high school.”
The Denton State Supported Living Center conducted an important, internal analysis of LeCarvin “Kevin” Lewis’s death, known as a mortality review, before knowing how he died.
Hospitals typically conduct mortality reviews to look for process failures, performing them soon after a death while details are fresh in people’s minds, experts say. Mortality reviews serve as an important safeguard for any hospital patient or institutional resident. When medical and nursing staff regularly review their cases in a timely, systematic way, they are often better able to identify actions that can prevent similar deaths.
It may be a month or more before investigators at the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office determine an official cause of death for Lewis. The Denton center staff reported the 41-year-old missing on June 29. His body was found behind the campus kitchen five days later. Denton police are investigating the case.
Lewis’ mother, Marilyn Jackson, said it’s been over a month since her son was found dead and she still doesn’t really know what happened to him. But she’s learned a few things she thinks were important.
“My son had seizures and could fall at any time,” Jackson said. “When I would come [visit], there was always someone one-on-one with him, but now they are telling me he was not [supervised] one-on-one.”
While officials at the Texas Department of Health and Human Services confirmed that a mortality review was completed in Lewis’ case, they declined to release a copy to the Denton Record-Chronicle. Jackson said she didn’t have a copy either. The agency’s attorney says the document is exempt from disclosure because of confidentiality laws, both for Lewis and for the peer review process. The Texas Attorney General’s Office is reviewing the matter.
All 13 state-supported living centers are required to conduct mortality reviews within 21 days of a resident’s death, with some exceptions. The requirement is one of many folded into a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice, which sued Texas in 2008 over complaints of abuse and neglect at the centers — home for 3,000 people with developmental disabilities.
Texas agreed to independent federal monitoring against those new requirements, called standards of care.
Most Texas centers have improved over the past decade, but not enough to end the federal supervision when it was expected to conclude five years ago. Christine Mann, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Health and Human Services, said in an email that agency officials do not know when monitoring will end, since it is based on each center complying with those standards of care in a substantial way.
During their visits, inspectors scrutinize at least four mortality reviews against the required standards of care for the practice. In other words, even though the reviews have been deemed confidential, independent analysis of those reviews has been ongoing for a decade and those records are publicly available.
According to federal records, the Denton staff has reviewed resident deaths at the center — 28 in all — from 2016 to 2018 in a timely manner. The individuals who died ranged in age from 35 to 82 years old.
Across the state, the federal monitors found that all Texas centers conducted nearly every mortality review in a timely manner. But they also found that few of the centers made recommendations from those reviews or followed through on lessons learned.
At the Denton center over the past three years, the inspectors found that medical and nursing staff provided little to no evidence of analysis or recommendations being implemented from the mortality reviews, according to the monitoring reports.
For example, a 41-year-old woman died in December after significant weight loss, but there was no review of the potential that her anti-seizure medication had contributed to the problem. Elsewhere, the report noted that the woman’s diet plan was improperly implemented yet concluded that “no potential nursing factors led to the death.”
In February 2018, a 48-year-old man choked on a beef tip after eating a meal that was not properly prepared for him. The man’s risk of choking was known and understood. The incident triggered new training recommendations for the staff, yet federal monitors noted that during meal time they observed the same issues that led to the fatal incident: food of the wrong size or texture, individuals eating too fast, individuals taking multiple bites without swallowing, staff encouraging residents who were coughing to drink, and staff failing to cue individuals to alternate liquids and solids.
The federal monitors minced few words in their analysis of a mortality review that followed the death of a 44-year-old man after he was found with his ventilator tube lying on his chest in February 2017.
“Given that Denton SSLC is designated to serve individuals with some of the most intensive medical needs, it is essential that thorough and complete reviews of nursing care are conducted for all mortalities,” they wrote.
Denton’s center is the largest of the 13 in Texas, with 446 residents and 1,727 employees who care for them.
In January, federal monitors noted some improvement in Denton. In about half of the mortality reviews that the inspectors analyzed, the staff made both clinical and training recommendations. Follow-through, however, was still lacking. The inspectors found no evidence that the recommendations were followed through to closure.
In an email, Mann wrote that they noted the lack of documentation from the report.
“With that feedback, we are continuing to strengthen our processes to ensure thorough documentation,” Mann said.
U.S. Department of Justice inspectors are expected back in Denton on Sept. 23.
Texas has more large-scale residential institutions than any other state and has not closed any since 1996, although the number of people living in those centers has dropped by half. Even so, the resident count in Denton continues to hold steady between 400 to 450 individuals.
The cost of care per resident has risen 61% in nine years, from $12,328 in 2010 to $19,840 in 2019. Efforts to close and consolidate Texas centers by critics of institutional care have faltered. Supporters, including the families of some residents and the public employees union, say the centers offer a safe, appropriate place to live. House Bill 3080 proposed closing the Austin State Supported Living Center, but it died in committee without a hearing this session.
No center can close without legislative authority.
Whether the review of Lewis’ death has a long-term effect on the Denton center and its practices, or the practices of the other centers statewide, remains to be seen. Mann said the agency has revised its policy for missing persons and other unauthorized departures.
“Additionally, we are consulting with a retired law enforcement officer to review the campus search plans and provide recommendations for improvement,” she added.
Officials at the Denton center appeared to have made some improvements since her son disappeared, Jackson said. However, she felt that equipment and facilities at the center are too old and she wonders whether certain technology, such as security cameras and wearable call buttons, could help.
“In abandoned areas, including in the gravel where my son was found, grass has been standing there, not mowed, or cleaned up,” Jackson said. “I’m afraid it could happen to someone else who’s not supervised one-on-one.”
A mural of the Virgin of Guadalupe on the wall of a market served as the background for speakers and attendees Saturday evening as they honored the victims of three mass shootings with a vigil.
Movimiento Cosecha Denton organized the vigil, titled “Amor Eterno,” outside La Estrella Mini Market to honor the victims of shootings in El Paso, Dayton, Ohio, and Gilroy, California, in recent weeks. Movimiento Cosecha is a movement advocating for immigrants’ dignity, respect and permanent protection.
Although the Denton vigil honored the dead from all three mass shootings, many attendees focused on the El Paso victims — many of whom were part of the Mexican community. A majority of the vigil was held in Spanish.
“[This vigil] was needed because we know that the immigrant and Mexican community is feeling targeted” after the El Paso shooting, said Mariela Nuñez-Janes, the lead organizer and a member of Movimiento Cosecha Denton.
Eight of the 22 victims of the El Paso shooting were Mexican citizens, and most of the others had Hispanic-sounding last names. Authorities said Friday the suspect, Patrick Crusius, of Allen, admitted to officers he was targeting Mexicans.
Three people died in the Gilroy shooting and nine in Dayton. More than 60 total people were injured.
Saturday’s vigil honored the dead with Mexican traditions including music, food and a limpia, or spiritual cleansing. The ritual, which involved water splashed with a rose, is meant to cleanse the mind, body and soul of negative thoughts.
“Amor Eterno,” which means “Eternal Love,” was the name of the vigil, and it’s also the name of a song by mariachi singer Vicente Fernández that is played at many Mexican funerals.
At a vigil in El Paso, Mexican band Puesta del Sol performed Fernández’s song, and Nuñez-Janes said it was important for Movimiento Cosecha to play it as well.
Along with music, other speakers shared art and poetry they created in response to the shootings. One artist made a painting with a big heart and said it represents the heaviness that people feel in their hearts, but it’s also a reminder to everyone to find the light in dark situations.
Alejandra Ramos Gomez, who shared several poems in English and Spanglish, said she was in Juárez, Mexico, at the time of the Texas shooting and had friends checking up on her. Juárez is 11 miles from El Paso.
Ramos Gomez said it took her a few moments to find out the shooting occurred in El Paso, not Juárez, and repeated a sentiment from others in El Paso over the past week about how it’s a very peaceful city.
Another attendee, Priscilla Yeverino, said gun violence is a continuing problem and added the El Paso shooting could have happened anywhere else, closer to North Texas.
“No matter what we say, [President Donald Trump’s rhetoric against immigrants] has led to this,” Yeverino said. “His words led to this person driving from our next-door county all the way down to the border, but it could have been us. It could have been any Walmart with brown bodies and black bodies.”
Local activist Anjelica Fraga said people should be actively anti-racist instead of just saying they condemn white supremacy.
The organization also offered pan dulce (sweet bread) and hot chocolate, which are handed out to honor the dead during Día de los Muertos.
Denton City Council member Paul Meltzer spoke in Spanish to attendees. Meltzer recalled speaking with people on the Square two weeks ago about hate and how they didn’t know another shooting would occur in Texas so soon.
“We should celebrate every person, every culture and show there’s no space for hate,” Meltzer said in Spanish.
Denton County commissioners on Tuesday are expected to end months of silence in addressing the divisive Confederate soldier monument that stands in downtown Denton.
On the Commissioners Court’s agenda is a presentation and update on plans to address the many concerns about the monument.
It will be the first time Denton County Judge Andy Eads’ court has taken up the issue publicly since Eads took office eight months ago.
Eads said in a text message Friday that commissioners will not take any action on the monument this Tuesday. He said Tuesday will consist only of a presentation to identify which steps the county should take next after a citizen committee recommended adding a plaque with historical context about the racism that led to the monument’s construction in the first place.
“The agenda item is for presenting purposes only and official actions will be at future meetings,” Eads wrote Friday.
The committee’s recommendation was made in February 2018, when Eads’ predecessor Mary Horn was in office. More than a year later, the unresolved debate about the Confederate monument’s future still looms over the Eads court.
The Denton Record-Chronicle revealed earlier this summer that Horn instructed the county’s historical commission to apply for a Texas Historical Commission marker, which would have ended all discussion about removing the Confederate monument altogether.
The state rejected the county’s application for multiple reasons. That rejection came in late January, just after Eads took office on Jan. 1.
That the county applied for and was rejected for the marker was a surprise to many people on the committee that decided in 2018 to add historical context to the monument.
Separately, a group is putting into motion a plan to create a public memorial to pay tribute to the victims of lynching in Denton County. Called the Denton County Community Remembrance Project, the grassroots effort to join the Legacy Museum and National Memorial to Peace and Justice is gaining momentum.
Denton City Council member Deb Armintor last Tuesday asked the council to adopt a resolution supporting the placement of the lynching memorial on the downtown Square, also the site of the Confederate soldier monument.
Denton County commissioners will meet at 9 a.m. Tuesday inside the second-floor courtroom at 110 W. Hickory St. in Denton.